Is Lindsey Graham about to rescue Trump’s Syrian policy?

President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria has been met with a mixed reception as political figures on both sides of the spectrum have condemned his choice. US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been very supportive towards the Trump administration, joined fellow Republicans like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham in criticising the President’s decision. His former 2016 Democrat rival, Hillary Clinton, also could not resist referring to Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria as a “sickening betrayal” of America’s allies.

After American troops vacated the Middle Eastern country, Turkey has unleashed a military offensive into northeastern Syria. Since 9 October, the operation has displaced at least 130,000 people. Chloe Cornish et al of the Financial Times argued that the biggest winner of the President’s decision so far has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) being targeted by Turkey’s military is now partnering with Assad in a move which will likely please Moscow and Tehran. Both Russia and Iran are two of the Syrian President’s most loyal allies and without American support, there is little the Kurds can do to resist Damascus’s military grip.

The SDF is regarded by Ankara as a terrorist group. Since Trump made his choice to quit supporting the Kurds, they are relying on Moscow for support instead. This is because they face two scenarios: either be wiped out by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or depend upon another nation whose influence over the Middle East is increasing: Russia. The Turkish President has vowed to finish what he started, but because of the agreement the SDF has reached with the Putin-friendly Assad regime, Damascus would only defend the north-east region against Turkey’s advance into Syria rather than end Kurdish control. Kurdish institutions would also be preserved. This has the potential of shattering Erdogan’s plans of using north-east Syria to resettle refugees.

Trump stressed repeatedly that US troops were not in the region, but on 11 October reports emerged of armed forces coming under fire. This also contradicts what US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said about all troops being withdrawn from Syria. Despite all the criticism he has received from opponents, it seems like the President is hopeful that he can achieve a peaceful settlement to this conflict. This is consistent with the Republican’s foreign policy approach since he took office.

The President has not abandoned Syria and he is resorting to using sanctions to cripple Turkey’s economy to bring them to the negotiating table. Steel tariffs would be increased to 50 per cent and discussions over a $100 billion trade deal would be delayed. This is an approach both the Republicans and the Democrats have encouraged Trump to adopt and he has listened to them to a certain extent.

Although the President has vowed to destroy Turkey’s economy in response to their Syrian invasion, the sanctions he has imposed on Ankara so far have been too timid. They target the ministers of defence, energy and interior. Erdogan can use these sanctions as a means to strengthen his support and blame Turkey’s economic woes on Trump. The Graham-Van Hollen Bill, being proposed by Senators Graham and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) would issue more effective sanctions against the Turkish President and the Vice President on top of the officials already targeted by Trump’s sanctions. It will also prohibit all military transactions with Ankara and impose visa restrictions.

Trump’s foreign policy approach has shattered the US’s image abroad. The Kurds have fought alongside American forces in defeating ISIS and now they have been left vulnerable to Erdogan’s troops. The President may be trying to end “pointless wars” to appeal to his base, but if his strategy is to replace conflict with sanctions, they need to be tougher. Now he must depend upon Graham to rescue his foreign policy, and with bipartisan support for the Republican’s bill in both Houses of Congress, the South Carolina Senator may just do that.